The XX Factor

Women as Primary Breadwinner? Black Women Know All About It

Black women have long been primary breadwinners for their families.

Though obvious on its face, the point bears occasional repetition: When we speak of “women” in the feminist blogscape, we are often talking about a specific demographic profile; usually white, straight, middle-class and somewhat liberal. But in reality, of course, women are a far more diverse bunch, with a diversity of experience and perspective to match. As Amanda Marcotte and Libby Copeland have discussed here recently (in response to comments made by S.C. Governor Nikki Haley), conservative women see the contraception debate and the “War on Women” in general from a very different point of view than we might expect. And, as we consider the quickly approaching future in which women are predicted to be the primary breadwinners in most households, African-American women have something unique to add to discussion as well—they’ve been living that “future” for a long time already.

According to a post by Zerlina Maxwell that’s making the rounds, Black women are already the “lifeblood” of their families in a community hard hit by the recession and in which men face added, often racist, obstacles to employment. The American Prospect had a piece back in 2008 exploring the issue, and the findings support Maxwell’s point:

Because of the limited economic prospects for black men, black women are likely to be both primary caregivers and primary breadwinners in our families. In nearly 44 percent of black families with children, a woman is the primary breadwinner. This includes both families headed by working single mothers and married-couple families in which the wife works and the husband does not. These female breadwinner families account for over 32 percent of aggregate black family income. 

Maxwell argues that white women might want to take a lesson as our culture moves into the new economic landscape: “Black women who have been able to navigate this new frontier may be able to offer some guidance as we’ve been here first…”

It’s good advice, because as Liza Mundy describes in her new book, The Richer Sex, the dynamics of domestic life are in for a shake-up. For one thing, definitions of masculinity will have to change (an issue I’ve written about elsewhere), and, more generally, couples will have to renegotiate issues covering everything from chores to sexual attraction. As this economic power shift for women in general becomes more pronounced, it behooves all of us to remember that there are actually some women who are already well ahead of the curve.